During the spring of 1937, Jonathan Daniels, the talented editor of The News & Observer, piled into his roomy black Plymouth and headed on a six-week road trip to explore the South.
The result was a national best-seller, “A Southerner Discovers the South,” that explored the history, race relations and the politics of the mid-century South.
Daniels took a magnifying glass to the experiment in public power, Tennessee Valley Authority; examined the tragedy of the Scottsboro Boys in Alabama; the efforts to organize tenant farmers in Arkansas; and the wealth of the Coca Cola suburbs of Atlanta.
His purpose was to provide a more complex view of the South, one that he thought had been sensationalized by Erskine Caldwell’s “Tobacco Road” and sentimentalized by Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind.”
Daniels’ journey and bestseller is the subject of a fascinating and well-researched book by Jennifer Ritterhouse, a University of North Carolina-trained historian who now is a professor at George Mason University in Virginia.
Ritterhouse uses Daniels’ book and unpublished notes from his travels as a lens to explore the South of the late 1930s, taking the subjects that Daniels wrote about and providing more details and broader historical context.
She offers an intriguing glimpse of the South of mules and sharecroppers, strict racial segregation and country stores – all before interstate highways, the civil rights movement and post-war Sunbelt growth.
Ritterhouse also underscores the limits of mid-century Southern liberalism: Daniels supported segregation, but believed that black people should be treated more fairly on their side of the color line.
Jonathan Daniels was a member of the family that owned The N&O from 1894 until 1995, when it was sold to the California-based McClatchy chain. His father, Josephus Daniels, was a major figure in North Carolina as newspaper publisher, Secretary of the Navy under President Woodrow Wilson and ambassador to Mexico under President Franklin Roosevelt.
Josephus Daniels had a mixed legacy. He was a progressive on many issues, but he was also a white supremacist who played an important role in the racist campaigns of 1898 and 1900, which eventually lead to the disenfranchisement of most black voters in the state.
Jonathan Daniels inherited his father’s progressivism, but crafted his own legacy as a mid-century Southern liberal and a moderate on racial questions.
He also had broader views on race than his father – a function of different generations as well as different backgrounds. Jonathan was highly educated, with two degrees from Chapel Hill, and studied 16 months in France and Italy on a Guggenheim Fellowship. He also spent much of his childhood in Washington D.C., while he his father served in Wilson’s Cabinet.
“He was a white southern liberal caught in the contradictions between the Jim Crow culture into which he was born and the principles of democracy and simple decency in which he believed,” Ritterhouse writes.
Besides being a newspaperman and prolific author, Jonathan Daniels would later serve as an aide and press secretary to Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman – although that was still ahead of him when he climbed into his car in the spring of 1937.
As Ritterhouse writes, “Daniels was moved by the plight of the ‘forgotten man,’ particularly the desperately poor sharecropper. But his interests were also broader and his aspirations greater than those of others who documented southern rural poverty in the 1930s. He hoped to change Americans’ very perceptions of a region that had been both caricatured and romanticized and was widely misunderstood.”
The 35-year-old Daniels met with planters, industrialists, union organizers, newspapermen and academics. The consensus among reviewers at the time was that Daniels had written the best book about the modern South.
But there were criticisms. He used composite characters in some instances, and wrote that he began the trip in Virginia, when he really started in Raleigh. He rarely interviewed black people, believing that few would talk freely to a white stranger in 1937. Some of the racial descriptions today cause one to blanch.
Ritterhouse has done an admirable job in transporting us to a time and place and a southern liberal’s struggle to describe a region on the cusp of change.
“Discovering the South, One Man’s Travels Through a Changing America in the 1930s”
By Jennifer Ritterhouse
The University of North Carolina Press, 384 pages